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Seats vs vote share - what does success in the 2017 general election look like for Labour?

The definition could have a bearing on what happens after 8 June 2017. 

At the start of January, any hope progressives had that 2017 could be better than 2016 was punctured by the Fabian Society. A report deemed Labour “too weak” to win a general election and predicted the proportion of voters willing to back it could slump to 20 per cent. After Theresa May announced a snap election in April, the author of that report, Andrew Harrop, took to these pages to warn of Labour’s worst result since the 1930s. “Labour’s task,” he added, “Is to show that the history books are wrong.

Some in Labour feel they are living up to that task. A YouGov/Times poll put Labour on 39 per cent to the Conservatives’ 42 per cent voting share. A projected result suggested a hung Parliament. This is a long way from the Tory landslide predicted at the start of the campaign. Some expect the embattled Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, derided by much of his parliamentary party, to increase Labour’s vote share from that achieved in 2015. Len McCluskey, the Corbyn ally who has Unite in his limpet-like grip, deemed Labour winning 200 seats to be a success. Chuka Umunna, on the other hand, a man perennially touted as a future leader, told The New Statesman  that “the ultimate test here is we’ve got to get more seats than the Tories – end of story”. So on 9 June, how will we judge whether Labour did a good job or not?

It matters because, so long as Labour MPs are opposed to the leader foisted on them by members, the battle over the party’s future rages on. New Labour veterans hope a general election will bring it to its senses – Peter Mandelson famously prayed for one – while Corbynistas believe the campaign will invigorate the members who vote for the leader in the first place.

The first measure of success is – fairly obviously – the number of seats Labour wins on 8 June 2017. Unsurprisingly, Labour incumbents facing imminent unemployment consider this the only definition of success. One tells me between door knocking sessions: “It is really straightforward – it is seats, seats, seats.” He points to the 1951 general election as a cautionary tale. “Sure, we won the popular vote share but we lost power. That inaugurated a long, long period of Conservative government. 

“It’s like Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote but losing the Presidency. No one thinks Clinton succeeded.”

The idea of seats as success is enshrined in Clause I of the Labour Party rule book, which states that “the party shall… promote the election of Labour Party representatives at all levels of the democratic process”. 

Since no pollster is putting Labour on course for the most number of seats, the 2017 general election by this metric is likely to be a failure. 

However, for supporters of Corbyn, and those on the radical left, vote share is also important – at least for the policy battles ahead. For this wing of the party, Corbyn’s leadership has been the opportunity of a lifetime to rethink policies. If, as they hope, Corbyn can increase the vote share, it is a sign that the shift to anti-austerity and pro-nationalisation rhetoric has, on at least one level, worked. 

Michael Chessum, a pro-Corbyn commentator who writes for The New Statesman, suggests Corbyn could be on course to get a higher vote share than both his predecessor Ed Miliband in 2015 and Labour’s last election winner, Tony Blair, in 2005. 

“Given that Corbyn's Labour has been through two years of internal fighting, with much of the parliamentary party openly at war with the leadership, that would be an achievement,” he says. “Then again, if the polls are to be believed, Labour could be on course for something much, much bigger than merely hold its ground.”

One trend in 2017 most commentators agree on is that the election looks less like the multi-party tustel of 2010 and 2015 and more like a traditional two-horse race. This is down in part to the decline of Ukip, which received nearly four million votes in 2015, but collapsed in the local elections in May. 

Chessum believes this underlines the fact those voters have moved to the Conservatives, which could “make a strong performance by Labour look weak”. 

However, Tom Baldwin, Miliband’s director of strategy, disagrees. He argues many Ukip voters were former Labour ones. Their votes, he tells me, were “up for grabs”. 

It’s easy to characterise the debate over the definition of success as one of realists vs idealists, or left vs right. In reality, views are more nuanced. Baldwin addressed the question at length in The Sunday Times, and concluded that “a significant advance” by Corbyn, which included winning seats, might allow the leader to stay on. 

Chi Onwurah, the incumbent for Newcastle on Tyne Central, and a Corbyn critic who nevertheless remained in the shadow cabinet, told me success "has to mean winning an election".

Nevertheless, she praised the campaign strategy: “Our election campaign has gone a long way about how we talk about the economy and public services, and that is to be celebrated.”

Other MPs have been encouraged by the appearance of volunteer Momentum doorknockers and a costed manifesto full of popular pledges.

Yet even if the election campaign has created a camraderie unseen since 2015, unless the result defies all expectations, the end of the campaign is likely to see that solidarity dissolve - and the return to the bitter struggle over Labour's future.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.